Community Engagement and the Befuddled Academic
When I wrote my first Op/Ed piece as a faculty member, I was scared of out my mind. I read and re-read our faculty handbook, asked everyone I could find if ‘it was okay’ to speak about the need for unbiased science education in my state.
A bill was being put forth to talk about climate change and evolution as ‘theories’. As a scientist, this was counter to what I knew about pulling opinions from facts and looking at data objectively. The scientific debate on these topics is over and yet my children might be coming home with some very wrong-minded views. Grabbing our newspaper in the morning, I found it. A giant Op/Ed denouncing the legislation. The only problem was that it wasn’t my letter. It was from three other (way more famous) faculty members in my state. And they wrote a far more strongly worded letter than I had, and it was truly amazing. My university actually highlighted their outreach almost immediately.
In the midst of faculty members like Sara Goldrick-Rab (Wisconsin) and Jennifer Berdahl (U British Columbia) taking to social media to address concerns about their respective universities very real budget and governance challenges, the Committee on Freedom of Expression at University of Chicago just issued a report salient to both conversations. The report is long on tolerance and short on guidelines. It highlights the importance of healthy, and sometimes uncomfortable, debate amongst all members of the academic community. It is certainly worth reading as these issues become increasingly important and access to broader audiences is both easier to get and harder to contain.
Footnote: Readers are also directed to a new publication by M Taffe (Scripps) on scientist engagement with the public using social media. While specifically addressing gaps in information on substance abuse, the discussion is salient to much of scientists interactions with the public. The article may be pay-walled at some institutions, but the author has been responsive to requests for reprints.